when searching means hope... (Doomsday Diary Challenge)
VJ put his back against the cement wall, closed his eyes, and pushed all the air out of his lungs. He’d been gulping breath on top of breath until he felt like he was going to pop. The few cans he had managed to trade for were slowing him down; they were too heavy to keep up with them, so he kicked his bag into one of the crevices of the crumbling wall and covered it with a piece of dirtied glass. The remaining shards crunched as he peeked around the corner and started stacking breaths again until he saw the girl who was holding the man’s hand come out between the market stalls; then all the air came out in one big whoosh. They were disappearing down the next aisle and VJ bolted to the other side to intercept them.
He slid his way through the crowd and saw his chance when the man dropped the girl’s hand to haggle with a vendor over a stack of black t-shirts that said White Stripes while she handled a pair of red shorts that almost matched the red shirt she wore. She was younger up close than he thought. Maybe six, definitely a few years younger than his own brother, Manu. Since she was half his age, maybe he could get it from her.
“Hi. You like baked beans?” he said to her, thinking of all the things Manu would trade for the can of baked beans he had managed to find. Her eyes flew wide and she shook her head ‘no’ at him.
“I have some.” he smiled, then remembered he had left it in the wall. His smile faltered and she stiffened and began to back away still shaking her head.
“Nevermind, nevermind. What’s that?” he asked pointing to the necklace that dangled low to her belly and put on his best big-brother-smile. “It’s pretty.”
She looked down at the heart shaped locket, then tipped her head to one side considering him. He nodded and opened his eyes wide, encouraging her.
“It’s pretty,” he said again.
“Papa got it for me.” she said.
“Was it from over there?” he asked, pointing to the front of the market, the place where the scavengers set up their blankets- just outside the market’s stalls.
“Yeah, so?” she shrugged.
“It’s neat. Does it open?”
“Open?” She looked down at it again, curious, and when she did, VJ looked past her to see the man stuffing the t-shirts into a knapsack. He had to go. He had to go now.
“Sorry.” he said and reached over, grabbed the necklace in one motion while his body twisted into a run in the other direction.
“Hey!” she yelled. VJ could feel the chain pinch around his knuckles, then it snapped him forward in a burst of acceleration as it broke around her neck.
“Hey!” she cried again, and the market blurred around him, and he angled for every piece of clear sky, every clear space to wiggle through, push, punch, get to the next one, then the next.
“THIEF!” the cry rang out behind him, and he felt as if cold water poured down his back. He pumped his legs faster and the air squeezed in and out of him. The people roiled around him.
“Thief! THIEF!” The cries got closer and hands tried to grasp him, legs jutted out to trip him: he spun away, jumped, and clawed through it all desperate to be clear of them all. He had to get out. Get out. Get out.
“Got him!” the shout was in his ear, then he was falling, spinning, rolling. His elbow screamed, his knee crunched and he tasted blood. For a moment everything stopped.
He didn’t breathe.
Then came a sound that was like a sucking groan- his lungs were filling. It hurt. Bad. They were a vacuum, sucking in all around them. It was all he could hear. His lungs ran out of air, and in came another breath, this one more a whine than a groan, but he could breathe again. While his lungs figured out how to work again from where the air was knocked out of him, he gathered up other bits of information- his elbow was on fire. No, not on fire, just scraped. So was his knee. It was dark, he was under some kind of table. He blinked and was under a market stall an aisle away from where feet were pounding. A glint caught his eye and he grabbed up the necklace that had caused so much trouble. There were other sounds now, the crowd roaring an aisle away from him- on the thief hunt. The hunt for him. The thief. He settled the locket to the bottom of his pocket as feet thumped past him, then he crawled, inched in the other direction- away from the chasers. Away.
He went table by table hunched over, his knee a misery, until he was at the very edge of the market where the scavengers had laid their blankets.They didn’t bother with tables or stalls; they were never in one place for very long.
“They catch the thief?”
VJ, looked up with a start, ready to run at the sound of “thief.” He backed up.
“Hey, kid. They catch the thief? You running. You him?” the scavenger glared at him moving closer.
“Why you all messed up then?”
“I got stuck in the chase. I fell.” VJ shook his head, sweat prickling, readying his legs to run again.
“Clear it all up.” the scavenger called to his partners. “They’ll come after us next if they don’t find’m.”
All the carefully laid out offerings - the lighters, metal pieces, trinkets scavenged from the ruins, from the dead, from the pieces of people’s lives - were jerked to the middle in a jumble thrown over his back and he was off.
VJ wiped the sweat off of his forehead and turned away from the clatter of the scavengers’ retreat. He limped toward the lean-to where he and Manu had been staying, plotting a course that would bring him away from most of the crowds who would be heading home. The dust was just beginning to kick up and he knew this would be the last day of the market. The dust storms would keep people away until they calmed back down.
They couldn’t stay here now. If they did, they’d find him; the girl saw him. They would have to move on. Tonight. Through the dust storm. He was now a thief, the worst of the worst; no one would shelter him now. They would brand him. Manu wouldn’t eat.
VJ thought of the cans in the wall. They were on the other side of the market- too far to get now. What they already had would have to do.
He heard footsteps and ducked in between two crumbling houses. There was a muddy puddle there and he smeared his knee and elbow with mud. Muddy was better than bloody and would buy them time before he was discovered.
His elbow screamed again and he sniffed in a quick breath through his nose. His eyes squeezed shut in pain and shame. What would his mother think of him, a common thief? He bit his lips into a straight line and continued to blink back his tears. It was quiet in the alley, and a quick look each way let him know no one was coming for him yet.
VJ pulled the locket out of his pocket and examined it closely. It could be, maybe. It looked like the one his mother wore, but this one was banged up and he couldn’t make out the markings. Hers had words on it “te amo.” This one was so scratched he couldn’t tell.
His fingers worked on the clasp, but it wouldn’t open. Wouldn’t budge. The locket swam in front of him as tears of frustration worked their way out of his eyes.
Fine. He’d leave it. He wouldn’t know. He didn’t want to know. It wasn’t hers- she was still looking for them. Or...of course he had to know. He’d ask Manu if he thought it was. No, he’d never ask his brother- he’d never tell him. He’d throw it away first.
Footsteps approached and he jammed it back into his pocket, wiped tears from his face, put his head down and headed back toward where Manu would be waiting for him.
He made it back without anyone stopping him. Without anyone asking why this boy was so muddy- why this boy had nothing from the market- why this boy was alone. He was just one of many, one of so many. No one cared about him. No one but Manu.
Outside the lean-to, he could hear Manu singing to himself. Keeping himself busy. Waiting. He leaned his back up against the wall and listened. 47 bottles of beer on the wall… 47 bottles of beer...He pulled out the locket and tried the clasp again. It opened.
Looking back at him was his own smiling four year old face. Manu’s baby picture.
“What’s that?” Manu appeared at his side. He snapped it shut- shoved it into his pocket.
“Nothing. We have to go. Now.” VJ said and started into the lean-to putting everything they owned into Manu’s backpack.
“But the dust storm-” Manu whined.
“We’ve been in them before. We need to go now.” In went the flashlight, batteries, tuna can, water bottle, swiss army knife.
“Did you get the baked beans?” Manu’s hopeful face was almost too much for him.
“There wasn’t any. This place is dead. We have to move on.”
“Where did you like best so far?” VJ asked his brother.
“Capital.” Manu said at once. VJ nodded. Capital was just about as good as it got- it was big, there was at least a stream, a school, maybe the people that took them in were still there. A day or two walk away.
“That’s where we’ll go then.”
“But what about-”
“We’ll go there. We’ll stay there.”
“This isn’t working, Manu. We’ll go back there.”
“But what about Mama?”
VJ felt the locket bounce against his leg in his pocket. Not tonight.
“She’ll find us there.” he lied.
She wouldn’t. VJ knew Mama was dead.